Monday, February 15, 2010

Tote bag: important lessons from a simple project

On Friday I turned in my tote bag, the first project for my apparel construction class. I do not think anyone at my school harbors dreams of becoming a tote bag designer, but we all begin our apparel design studies by making one. Tote bag construction is a simple process, but in making this bag I learned some valuable lessons that will serve me well throughout my sewing career. Making this bag seemed to serve some additional purposes too: it introduces students to the apparel construction process, and it marks us as apparel design students.
Sewing the bag seems to be a rite of passage for apparel design students at UW-Stout. There are other items we will all make, but the bag is the one I hear mentioned most. I do not know if construction students all have a special tool or if education students all have a special red pen, but every apparel design student has a tote bag. I see students in their fourth year of school use the tote bag they made as freshmen to carry the supplies for their senior projects. Had I know that I am destined to develop such an intimate relationship with my bag I probably would have used a different print.

We were not given enough time in class to complete the bag. The only way to finish the project was to work on it in the open lab sessions. Students are permitted to work on their projects at home too, but at certain points in the construction process an instructor or lab supervisor must sign off on our work before we can continue. I finished my bag well ahead of schedule as did some of my classmates, while others are struggling to finish it on time. Late assignments are not accepted. I hope everyone in class finishes the bag and that they now understand the importance of good time management for our sewing projects.

Before this semester I would not have thought of a tote bag as a college level project, but I now understand that a simple project is the best way to teach the important skills that form the basis of advanced techniques. We had one lesson just about pressing fabric. Everyone knows how to iron, but there is a lot more to it that most people realize. We learned about pressing equipment (ham, sleeve board, point presser, pounding block, needle board, seam roll, press cloths) and how to press fabrics without damaging or distorting them. I did not know that I should iron in the direction of the fabric grain, nor did I know to press seams flat to set stitches before pressing them open. I have a few yards of corduroy at home. I knew about nap, but I had never heard of a needle board. I am glad I did not try pressing my corduroy before this lesson. I used to think I knew how to iron, but now I worry about what I do not yet know.

My fabric is a 60% cotton, 40% polyester blend. It took a while to find a setting on the irons that would not damage the fabric. I was smart enough to test the iron on scrap pieces first. I found the fabric in the drapery section of Hancock Fabrics. It was on sale for $3.00 per yard, down from $12.00. Nobody wants drapes with a print that is five years old.

The measurements for the bag’s pieces were posted to the class web page. All the pieces were rectangles. It would have been easy to measure the rectangles onto the fabric and cut them, but we were not allowed to do so. We had to make pattern pieces, pin the pieces to the fabric, then cut. Learning how to make a tote bag was nice, but learning about patterns will be more useful. I do not expect to make too many more tote bags, but I will use lots of patterns.

Before we could lay out the pattern pieces we had to ensure that our fabric was on grain. Last semester I could simply measure from the grainline on the pattern piece to the selvage, but that method is no longer good enough. Now I begin by pulling a crosswise yarn and cutting along the line it makes. I then fold the fabric so that the selvages are parallel and see if the crosswise cut I made is perpendicular to the selvage. No one in class had fabric that was perfectly on grain. What can you expect for $3.00 per yard? The way to straighten the fabric is to have two people grab the short corners of the folded fabric and pull in the direction of true bias. Fold, check, pull, and repeat until the fabric lines up right.

The bag’s seams were finished with a serger. I would have preferred to make enclosed seams or to hide the seams with a lining, but my ability to follow directions is a large portion of my grade. Projects I work on now must be made the way their designers intended. Once I begin designing my own items I will be able to make them as I please.

The straps were the most difficult part of the project. Sewing them was easy as was attaching them to the rest of the bag. The problem was turning them right side out. The pattern pieces were 3” wide and 31” long, and we used a ½” seam allowance. Turning each strap took more than 15 minutes. The rest of the project seemed quite easy. I worked slowly because I wanted to do everything as best as I could. I do not yet know how demanding my instructor is. I hope I get a good grade on the bag. I may need it to balance out my grades for the other projects which will be a lot more difficult.

Yesterday I began work on a shirt at home, and in class today I will start work on a skirt, but the next item I finish will be another tote bag. My instructor is allowing me to use the industrial lockstitch machines in the lab so that I will not lose the skills I picked up last semester. I may not use the industrial machines for class projects, but I can use them for my own stuff. I bought some nice fabric for a shirt, but the first thing I will make is a tote bag. Every industrial machine has a unique personality, so I want to become accustomed to the lab machines before I start work on something complicated. A tote bag will let me do this. It will be my fourth tote bag of the semester. I made two at home as practice and one in class. I have no idea what I will do with all these bags. Anyone need one?

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